America has a talent problem. For years, we have been able to outcompete and out-innovate other nations in large part because we have had a constant stream of human capital, fueled by a strong education infrastructure and an immigration system that attracted the best, brightest and hardest working from around the world. These two pieces, coupled with policies that promoted growth and development and protected intellectual and individual property, drove our economy forward and kept the American Dream alive.
However, today our education system is in disarray and our immigration system is broken. Our K-12 schools are lagging behind other developed countries. On the 2009 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) exam, out of 34 countries, our students ranked 25th in math, 17th in science and 14th in reading. Even students in our wealthiest school districts are behind their peers from around the world. And our high school graduates are not going on to fields of study that will prepare them for careers of the future, such as science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). As a result, the U.S. will face a projected shortage of more than 200,000 workers in these critical fields by 2018.
Immigrants could help fill these vacancies in the short-term. But unfortunately Congress, which lately has valued conflict over cooperation, is playing political football with a piece of legislation providing more visas to immigrants who graduated from U.S. universities with degrees in the STEM fields. Under the legislation, the STEM visas are not newly created, but rather, taken from a visa lottery that promotes diversity of country of origin, meaning that the legislation which has passed in the Republican led House is going nowhere fast in the Democratic led Senate. While the bill continues to stall, America will continue to give the smart, young graduates that we so desperately need degrees from our top universities, then, send them back to their home countries to compete against us.
None of this makes sense, and we’re already starting to see the devastating consequences on our economy. This is one of the first recessions where there are actually thousands of positions waiting to be filled, but no qualified candidates to fill them. In one concrete example, Microsoft has 6,000 open jobs across the U.S. 3,400 of those openings are for engineers, software developers and researchers, but the talent they are trying to attract is mostly employed. Computer and technology related occupations have what economists would consider full employment, an unemployment rate at 3.4%, compared to the nation’s 7.9%. For Microsoft and similar companies to hire more people, we need to grow the pool of talent with the skills necessary to succeed.
Meanwhile, social mobility is being reduced to zero as the great education divide – those who have access to a quality education and are prepared for a 21st Century, global economy, and those who do not – is creating a great economic divide, leading to social unrest and resentment. But the best remedies our leaders have been able to present thus far are lofty speeches on deserted factory floors reminiscing about the days and jobs gone by.
Political speeches won’t revive our economy. The answer to getting our economy back on track is to put an economic focus on our education and immigration policies.
Florida’s Governor Rick Scott announced a plan this week to push for Florida’s state universities to do just that. Governor Scott is urging the university system to freeze tuition in “strategic areas” deemed important for the state’s economy. This can be considered an extension of a practice that has long been dominant in America – paying people in certain high-demand, high-skilled careers a premium for their talent. By reducing the price and barrier of entry, over the long-term, policies like this can lead to more young talent entering fields where human capital is so desperately needed.
Other governors across the country, and leaders at the federal level, should consider this type of industrial policy in higher education. Congress should approve a special Pell Grant that would be available to students pursuing degrees in the fields of the future. These FOCUS grants would promote “Future Opportunities and Careers in the United States,” and their fields of focus could be decided every decade or so based on industry demands. A set number of these grants can be made available competitively every year to help guide students into academic pathways that will prepare them for careers in areas where well-paying jobs are both available and in high-demand.
These incentives in higher education fields will help in the long-term, and should be linked with other educational programs in K-12. But these shifts will take years. To solve the immediate talent shortage, the U.S. must look beyond its shores. We need to finally reform our immigration policy and follow the lead of countries like Singapore, Australia, Chile, and our neighbors to the north in Canada, who all attach economic need to immigration decisions. As has been previously argued in these pages, we need an immigration policy that places priority on skilled immigrants that are willing to invest their talents and resources in growing the American economy. We need a new visa to draw immigrant entrepreneurs, coupled with an increase in the number of visas for STEM graduates from U.S. universities. We simply can’t afford to continue to train our future competitors, or risk turning away the next Sergey Brin or Elon Musk.
Our talent shortage is real, but not insolvable. America’s universities, cities, freedoms and possibilities continue to attract the imaginations of people around the world and here at home. With smart reforms, we can turn those imaginations into innovations that will stimulate our economy in the immediate future and for generations to come.
This article originally appeared on The Future Forum.